Based on the books by Joe R. Lansdale, the SundanceTV series Hap and Leonard is set in the late 1980s and is a darkly comic, swamp noir story of two best friends, Hap Collins (James Purefoy), an East Texan with a weakness for Southern women, and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams), a gay, black Vietnam vet with a hot temper. When Hap’s seductive ex-wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) shows up with a get-rich-quick deal that they can’t refuse, it all snowballs out of hand, very quickly.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor James Purefoy talked about why Hap and Leonard is probably his favorite show that he’s ever done, wanting to work with Michael Kenneth Williams again, their easy chemistry, why he relates to these characters, and what Christina Hendricks brought to the project.
Collider: How much fun are you having making this show and playing this character?
JAMES PUREFOY: It’s probably my favorite show that I’ve ever done. It’s fun, it’s beguiling, they’re great characters, it’s not cynical, it’s stories being told well, and it’s sexy. When I first watched it, I’m not great at watching myself, but I found it a pleasure, as it unfolded in front of me.
How did this come about? Were you looking for a role as far away from The Following as you could?
PUREFOY: I wanted to get away from [Joe Carroll]. I really wanted to get away from him. I wanted somebody who had a heart and a soul because Joe Carroll is soulless. There was nothing in there. He was a vacuum of a man. Michael Kenneth Williams worked together awhile back on a show called The Philanthropist. He was my security detail, Dax, in the show. We finished that show, and we’d gotten on really well, but we felt like we hadn’t had many scenes together. We felt like there was unfinished business. I ran into him at a party, just as I was leaving New York after The Following, to go back to England. He rang me the following day and said, “I’ve got this crazy idea. I’ve been asked to do this show, called Hap and Leonard, for Sundance and it’s down in Louisiana. You’d be really good for Hap. If you’re interested, let’s hook it up.” So, we did. I loved the character. The character is the best definition of gentleman there is, which is a gentle man.
The chemistry between you and Michael K. Williams is so great to watch.
PUREFOY: Yeah, and I think men will like it, as well. I think men will enjoy that relationship. It’s all unspoken and unsaid, but it’s just there. You know these guys are buddies and they’ll have each other’s back, forever. They genuinely like each other. They remind me of Butch and Sundance. When I was growing up, Butch and Sundance was my absolute favorite film. So for me to be doing a slight recreation, in my mind anyway, of that and of that kind of relationship, for SundanceTV, just works.
What is it between you guys, as actors, that works so easily?
PUREFOY: I just think it’s because I’ve known him. It’s one of those things, when you’ve known somebody a long time and worked with them. We talk to each other in quite disrespectful ways, often. There are words that I can call Michael that not too many other white men can call Michael, but he knows that it’s with love and respect. We’re good buddies.
What can you say about these guys and the journey that they’re taking this season?
PUREFOY: They’re men of a certain age. They’re in their mid-40s, and life hasn’t really happened to them. One of the things that makes this so topical right now is that I think there are an awful lot of American men – and women, but I’m a man, so that’s what I can talk about – who feel the American dream has let them down. They’re working longer hours for less money. They’re pulling themselves up by the bootstraps, as hard as they can, and they’re told that if they work hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, anything is possible. But, it’s proven that it’s not actually happening. If you’re in your late 40s, when the fuck is that going to happen? You’re running out of time.
I grew up in a very rural community in England. The pub in our village was populated by men like Hap and Leonard, who were always trying to get rich with quick schemes and scams and trying to find ways to get themselves out. We all worked in industrial agriculture. It wasn’t the bucolic British countryside that Americans know and love. It was industrial culture with slaughterhouses, fieldwork and tractor driving. It was hard men in hard country with hard weather. They were like this. As soon as I read it, I thought, “They are just like those guys in the pub that I used to go to when I was a kid.” I got them immediately. It didn’t matter if they were American and East Texan. They are that certain kind of man that’s in every field, the world over.
And it’s not like these guys are looking to take an easy path.
PUREFOY: But, you know it’s going to be a disaster because they’re trying to do a good thing. And it’s only $100,000 with more and more people getting involved. These are not exactly high stakes, but it’s enough money for a man like that to maybe get out of a rut. I feel it’s very real. I don’t think it’s a far-fetched story. Shit like this happens, all the time. I think people will feel very affectionate towards these characters.
And then, there’s his ex who keeps drawing this guy back into her life, much to his downfall.
PUREFOY: She keeps drawing him back, but also, as you will find out, her motives are real and altruistic. Although they’re selfish, in one way, they’re very altruistic in another. We always have relationships in our lives with people we’ve fallen in love with, who come back into our lives and we fall in love with them again and go, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” but you can’t stop it. I think that will strike a chord.
What’s it like to add Christina Hendricks’ energy to the set?
PUREFOY: She’s a great woman. She’s such a fierce woman, who’s strong, assertive, powerful and incredibly talented. It’s like having a Rolls Royce arrive on set, when you are a couple of pick-up trucks. That’s what it’s like. She purrs onto the set.
With only six episodes, this must be a hard character to let go of.
PUREFOY: You don’t want to, and that’s really lovely. On this season, he’s kind of a bit broken, at the beginning. It’s in his eyes. The train is gone. He’s looking at his 50s, his 60s and his 70s, and then he’s dead. But by the end of the show, I feel you see him stand up straight and you see him actually become what his full potential is. By the time we get to the end, he’s changed.
Hap and Leonard airs on Wednesday nights on SundanceTV